A former Florida high school band director resigned in April after allegations he had been running a “cult-like group” with a former guidance counselor emerged.
Gabriel Fielder was the band director of Leesburg High School for nearly 20 years before information about The Elder Council was made public. Formed in March 2018, the council that began somewhat like a Bible study group turned into “something that was more controlling and manipulative,” according to one former member.
The young woman spoke with the Daily Commercial on condition of anonymity and explained how Fielder, along with guidance counselor Lenny Finelli, had begun recruiting band members to join the council that first held meetings in one of the student’s homes. After later renting out church spaces for their meetings, they eventually begin holding all of their gatherings at Fielder’s home.
“It wasn’t odd because we had seen Gabriel Fielder as a mover and shaker already and we trusted him. We spent a lot of time at rehearsals and on the practice fields so we were just comfortable with him enough for that to happen,” she explained but noted, “When it was the worst was when it was in Gabriel Fielder’s home but it had changed a lot more before that.”
As the group expanded, the students were tasked with chores on Fielder’s property that he referred to as “ministry.” They built sheds and tended a garden to prepare for the apocalypse that Elder assured them was coming, “Honestly, it was more doing chores on his farm than it was doing ministry work, but that was how we saw it.”
“By the end of it,” the former student told the Commercial, “Gabriel was calling himself our ‘governor’ and that he had a place of authority over us.”
“He told us basically that he had such a close relationship with God that it was very, very, very rare and uncommon for him to get things wrong. And his thing was, ‘If I’m wrong, then God’s going to correct me, you guys don’t need to correct me,'” she recounted. The former student also explained that Fielder kept tabs on the whereabouts of all members using the Life360 app and that attendance at meetings, held Saturdays and Sundays, was mandatory.
The student explained how relationships among the members had been designated and that she had been paired off with Finelli whom she dated for seven months when she was 19. As membership in the council was believed to be a calling from God, so too was she led to believe that having a relationship with the guidance counselor, nine-and-a-half years her senior, was ordained by God.
“It was very strict on anything that had to do with a sexual nature, or anything that had to do with money, or who you spend your time with – all of that stuff was heavily controlled,” she explained while explaining that the relationship never became sexual.
Finelli was allegedly communicating with a 17-year-old male student at the time and, after the boy turned 18, was said to have begun a sexual relationship with him. Fielder was reported to have helped Finelli delete the messages exchanged between the counselor and the student.
In addition to frequently speaking in tongues during “astral projection” attempts, Fielder was said to have instructed students to mind what they told their parents. “Don’t describe this like that because your parents aren’t open to all of this stuff yet,” the former student explained. “They’re going to think we’re a cult.”
Speaking lengths to the detriment such organizations can have, she went on to say, “But I don’t even know if he understood how damaging he was to all of us. I don’t think he does. And I honestly don’t believe it was completely malicious.”
In lieu of terminations, both Fielder and Finelli resigned from Leesburg High School in April, and in a statement, Lake County Schools communications coordinator Sherri Owens explained in part, “As a public entity, we do not terminate an employee accused of wrongdoing without first giving them due process and completing an investigation. If an employee wants to resign prior to the completion of a district investigation, we cannot stop them from doing that.”
Owens also told WKMG, “This group was in no way affiliated with the school or the district, and any meetings they may have had were held off campus.”
According to the Commercial, no criminal charges have been filed over The Elder Council meetings at this time. For the former student who recounted her experience, she said it was “a slap in the face.”
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